Janelle Monae Buys Into Independence
Published May 22, 2010Though it's fun to debate the relative merits of genre classification in pop music, it takes an artist like Janelle Monae to really intensify the argument. Captaining her own independent, interdisciplinary arts collective within Sean Combs' Bad Boy empire, Monae bounces from heavy guitars to future soul to medieval folk. Monae's ambitious demolition of any expectations put on her is strengthened by her assuredness. Case in point: her debut album is not the beginning, but parts two and three of a four-part concept based on the German sci-fi classic Metropolis.
The fluidly eclectic ArchAndroid stands in contrast to the many musical updates of Metropolis, most notably Giorgio Moroder's famously Eurobotic 1984 version, but remains faithful to the movie's themes. "Metropolis: The Chase Suite [her EP released last year] dealt with an android. The android represents the other to me," explains Monae. "I can personally relate to the other by just my gender and race. This one is the follow-up; she had fallen in love with a human, and she was running. She finds out that she is the ArchAndroid, who is the mediator between the haves and the have-nots. This album deals with self-realization, embracing the things that make you unique. I write it from the perspective of the have-nots, people who are not necessarily victims, but who are out there working every day, dealing with life's problems. This music is motivational and meant to be inspirational."
And Bad Boy, the company that corporatized hip-hop into a major commercial force, is down with the arch concept? Monae points out that she's firmly in control: "I have my own recording label, the Wondaland Arts Society, and I had it when I met Sean Combs. He was really intrigued and excited that it was self-contained. Creatively, he loved everything we were doing and didn't want to be involved. He just wanted to expose what was going on in the underground."
Monae has been helped out by OutKast, with whom she appeared in their Idlewild project, over the years; Big Boi makes an appearance on the first single, the off-kilter, horn-driven soul of "Tightrope." "They've knocked down some doors for me as an artist, to come in, being a woman of colour, to experiment and still be respected and recognized on a national level. We're like family, they've given me a lot of advice."
Monae is gearing up for an even more thorough realization of the concept with the Wondaland team of artists and writers. "I'm shooting a video for every song on the ArchAndroid so we'll be creating a movie with a very beautiful narrative. We also have a graphic novel coming out. We'll also try and take this show on Broadway."
She will have reached a lot of ears by then, thanks to a summer touring schedule that careens from gigs with Erykah Badu to Lilith Fair, then shows with ArchAndroid guests Of Montreal. Monae is clearly able to synthesize big ideas in ways that draw in a wide range of listeners, but she insists it's not about striving to be unusual. "It's not about doing anything rock or classical for the sake of doing it ― it has to be great. It's about just celebrating our differences, and to freely express ourselves as we see fit."